Design harmony

P&T's Co-directors William Yuen and James Abbott discuss the chaotic, iconic, pyrotechnicand the music of architecture.

P&T co-directors William Yuen (right) and James Abbott (left).
P&T co-directors William Yuen (right) and James Abbott (left).

P&T's Co-directors William Yuen and James Abbott discuss the chaotic, iconic, pyrotechnicand the music of architecture.

What are the current styles prevalent in regional architecture?

WY: One of the more obvious trends in architecture is the development of complex or unconventional forms, which I see happening in Dubai faster than in any other city in the world. Buildings are starting to have twists, slanted or folded surfaces, free flowing curves and very large cantilever structures-building forms you saw very little of say 10 to15 years ago.

We seem to be moving into a period of iconic architecture, but to say something is ‘iconic', doesn't mean that it's good. In fact, some iconic structures are very bad looking. Iconic just means something that is easily recognisable. The fact is that some societies or rather developers demand that their buildings must stand out from their neighbours.

Architects therefore need to come up with different ideas to satisfy this need. In a city like Dubai, this can be a little chaotic when we are erecting hundreds of buildings all at the same time, there is no harmony.

Another trend is deconstructivism. This is an approach to building design which views architecture in bits and pieces and challenges the conventional notion of architectural orders. Two very good examples would be the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They are truly in a different category. Some think this style of architecture ignores all considerations for beauty and order and that deconstructivist architects are visionary philosophers.

Another more obvious trend is of course sustainable architecture, which is more than just dealing with stylistic matters. It can involve energy-efficient design, choice of materials, waste minimisation and a construction method such as prefabrication. These considerations have led to the development of distinctive architectural forms that are ecologically responsive.

JA: I agree, I'm not sure whether it's society that demands iconic structures as much as the developers that decide that iconic structures are what society wants. Architects do have the opportunity to lead and inspire and to make a visual statement, but at the same time it should be remembered that all buildings are the result of the collaboration between clients, developers and architects.

Until recently, all of P&Ts branches were located in Asia. Why the westward expansion?

JA: We started considering this market about 10 years ago as we gradually moved west from our bases in Hong Kong and China. We've worked throughout Asia, which led to some work in India, and coming to the Middle East was the next logical step. With the way the world is shrinking, the Middle East is not really that far for us. We're also looking at possible jobs in the former Soviet Union and even Mongolia-those are just some of the potential markets that we're currently exploring.

As an Asian company, do your structures have a discernible ‘Asian' feel or style to them?

JA: We don't try to be overtly Asian. We'd like to think that we have an international approach and also we strive to be timeless when we can. In many regards, we try to build buildings that will last the test of time and enhance the surrounding environment. A good example is Exchange Square in Hong Kong, which is 25 years old but has not dated. The exception is when we're working in very traditional settings and we're trying to be very contextual, we'll build something that corresponds to the surrounding context such as our Suzhou Sheraton hotel project in China.

What projects are P&T currently working on?

JA: The main project that we've been working on for the last three years is Dubai's City of Arabia, which is a 20 million ft² piece of land that we have masterplanned and are doing all the architectural work for phase one. It will include one of the largest malls in the world, 1400 low-rise residences, 10 kilometres of man-made waterway in an area called Wadi Walk and 34 high-rise towers-of which we're doing five. Also, one of the towers we're doing in City of Arabia, which everyone is excited about is called Time Residences, which revolves 360°.

We're also doing Tamweel's new headquarters building in Business Bay and we've done a large masterplan for Ajman Marina Free Zone, which will create a new high-end waterside residential district in a previously industrial area.

WY: For the same clients, we're designing the Ajman Corniche Residential Development on the seafront, which includes seven towers that are linked together in a wave-shaped plan.

We're also working on a number of projects in China. For developers looking for architects to build there, we are perfectly positioned to help because of our experience. We won two awards for a cultural complex in Shunde, southern China.

JA: It's also important to note, we don't just do commercial architecture. The group as a whole does the full range of projects including schools, universities, healthcare centres, retirement homes for the elderly, hospitals, museums and cultural buildings. Right now, everyone in Dubai wants to build real estate, but there is more to life than building state-of-the-art residences and offices. There will be a need to build more schools and hospitals. Part of the reason why we became architects is to contribute to the community. We take seriously our social responsibility.

Where do you get the inspiration for the structures you build? How do you keep your ideas fresh and innovative?

WY: I get inspiration from all things in life. Music, fashion, furniture and product design all inspire me. Travel too. It's important to experience other cultures and places and see how other people use space.

JA: Perception is one of the key tools an architect uses to be successful. Architects need to be visually attuned to looking at things very carefully and responding to their environments, wherever they are.

German poet Johann Goethe once said, "architecture is frozen music" because of the way elements in a building are strung together rhythmically. Do you agree?

WY: Yes, I agree. [Architects] all learn about architecture in terms of light, circulation, proportion of space and how people react to a building both internally and externally. These are the fundamentals. Experience and observation are what allow us to put together a building that enhances human interaction and our quality of life. This is the essence of architecture.

JA: Absolutely. ‘Frozen music' probably refers to the idea of the whole being greater than the sum of parts. It is the balance of everything that brings perfection. That is very much the classical philosophy of architecture but the rules are changing.

Can you expand on that?

JA: In this part of the world in particular, there is the idea that anything goes [in terms of size and scope of projects] but you have to be very careful with that philosophy. When looking at architecture, there is a basic human reaction to things being inherently right or wrong. And some of the things that we see promoted [in Dubai] seem just...not quite right.

Do you think it's unfortunate that people associate a destination with a cityscape or a certain "iconic" building?

WY: I think every city should have a landmark. Paris has the Eiffel Tower and London has Big Ben but a city is more than just these standout buildings. In fact, a large majority of a city is made up of buildings that are quite ordinary. In any city, there are many buildings that might be considered ‘ordinary' that have been done very nicely. A nicely done, nicely proportioned building doesn't have to shout.

So, you can see beauty in what a layperson might consider a normal building?

JA: It goes back to music. There is a certain harmony in a city. Dubai in particular is a very young city that's changing very rapidly, and it can seem a bit chaotic. Sometimes it is difficult working in an environment like this because none of us can predict where it's going or what will work architecturally. The great cities of the world were built over hundreds of years and must have had their own chaotic times. Within ten years we can expect Dubai to start to find its own particular character but the reality is that to build an entire city of this size in such a short period, is a very ambitious undertaking.

What's the difference between building in warm vs. cool climates?

JA: Basic needs for stable temperature, lighting, shelter and comfortable environment are the same the world over. The bigger challenges we face are cultural and contextual. In Islamic countries, for example, there are certain things we need to recognise and respond to, just as there are certain do's and don'ts in other cultures as well. We try to be very sensitive to cultures because we're guests here. We have to try to understand our clients and what will make them comfortable and that comes down to understanding environments.

Does P&T use local materials?

JA: Whenever we can, yes. But, we're limited to some extent with what's available locally here. I guess in terms of raw materials, ceramic ware and porcelain from Ras Al Khaimah is widely used, and of course aluminum is a big local product. The building industry is growing and we are starting to find more quality materials such as performance glass, but there is still limited supply. What we can use is largely market driven, so if it's cost-effective, sensible and environmentally sound we'll use local materials.

If you could have been involved in building any project worldwide, what would it be?

JA: I think one of the world's greatest modern era buildings is the Sydney Opera House. To me it's one of the world's most inspirational and one of the few truly international iconic architectural structures. The construction of the project is famous because it was fraught with difficult and challenging design problems and it is no secret that it was way over budget and behind schedule. It was clearly a challenge for all involved, but I think its realisation was an amazing achievement. It's a very inspiring and uplifting building that is totally appropriate for its location and for me the design approach was justified and it has the spiritual qualities that only great architecture can attain.

How does the future of architecture look from your perspective?

The trend now is to design buildings that are dancing and weaving and cantilevering, but I think, within the next five or ten years, the trend will return to a more traditional form.

What a lot of people don't realise is that there is a cost in doing buildings that breaks all the rules. This approach begs the question, ‘Is it environmentally responsible to design all buildings this way?' or ‘should we endorse spending exorbitant amounts of money doing ‘architectural pyrotechnics'?' Sometimes it can be justified but it is definitely not the best way to achieve cost-effective and sustainable sound design. We can't forget that commercial buildings in particular are, in fact, built to serve a basic purpose.

WY: Form needs to follow function. Or, in the rare case that function follows form, one needs a Master to do it tastefully. There are not many architects who can do it successfully.

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